Like most people who work in animal welfare, there have been animals I have encountered in my career that have left lasting impressions on me. I still think of them decades later, sometimes with happiness and sometimes with regret.
One animal I still vividly remember was a beautiful black and white tuxedo cat who lived with other cats outdoors in the apartment complex where I lived when I was 21. The group of cats, about a dozen, ate from the compound’s trash and were generally quite shabby-looking. Most of them were brutal and unacceptable, but this one was friendly and seemed healthy. She was particularly drawn to him because of his sweet nature and striking looks. I was talking to him when he parked my car, and one day he followed me home to my apartment.
He was screaming insistently across my yard, which angered my cat and really agitated my Labrador retriever. I agonized over wanting to add him to my pet family, but realized I couldn’t. I was just getting started in my career and couldn’t afford another pet, my landlord wouldn’t allow another animal, and I didn’t know if he could successfully blend into my small apartment with my other animals.
I decided to bring him to the humane society I work for, neutered and vaccinated him, and sent him back to his colony. Unfortunately, when I brought him in he tested positive for a deadly virus that would cause a slow death for him and a contagious one for the other cats. The recommended response for cats infected with the virus has been euthanasia to prevent the spread of the disease or to care for the cats indoors until the disease is too advanced to be tolerated. I could not bring him into my home where he would infect my existing cat and bring him back to the colony where he would not receive supportive health care would be inhumane. With no other options at the time, she was humanely killed. However, I still wish things would turn out differently, and I am deeply saddened by what happened to him.
I think of him a lot these days when the DACC looks at its approach to accepting and managing cats in our communities. Outdoor cats are the subject of strong and varied opinions about what to do about them. While stray dog populations create serious public safety concerns about bites and thefts, free-roaming cats do not generate the same concern. However, they can cause quality-of-life problems for residents whose property is disrupted by their presence, spread zoonotic diseases, fall victim to predation from coyotes and dogs, get killed by cars, and face other challenges.
On the other hand, bringing cats to animal shelters is not the solution most people think. The recovery rate for lost cats is very low nationwide (around 2% – 4%) because most owners don’t come to look for them, or don’t until long after the stray cat’s retention period is over and the cats are no longer around. . Feral (non-recombinant) cats brought to animal shelters have very little chance of being adopted. People come to adopt pet cats, not wild cats. These cats may also become infected with deadly viruses. They are almost always euthanized. Unwanted offspring of outdoor cats brought to animal shelters without their mothers have little chance of surviving in an animal shelter. The DACC has a vibrant care program to help them, but if they are really ill or unable to survive, they must be humanely killed.
Dozens of scientific papers have been created supporting each disparate view. Wildlife Defenders papers report that outdoor cats wreak havoc on wildlife populations—birds, reptiles, rodents, and so on. Some animal welfare organizations, including PETA, oppose managing cats outdoors because of the dangers discussed above that outdoor cats face.
Scientific papers supporting the position of outdoor cat advocates reinforce the importance of managing the outdoor cat population through spaying and neutering, not removal. These papers proved that simply trapping cats and removing them from an area causes a void that other cats fill, perpetuating the homeless cat problem. However, spaying and returning existing cats keeps the population without exponential growth through reproduction and prevents new cats from entering the population because existing resources (food, water, and shelter) are already being used.
Both positions have very valid arguments and there is no clear solution that would satisfy all fears and unite supporters of disparate opinions. This is also complicated by the different scenarios we see in outdoor cats.
Some cats are possessive but can go outdoors and may roam for a while. They don’t come home every evening, so owners don’t look for them right away if they haven’t been seen for a day or two. Other cats don’t really have owners but have found resources to support them because good people put out food for them, there is safe shelter, and there is a lack of predators. Then there are the “colonial” cats where a large number have found resources on their own and may or may not have someone looking for them. The lucky ones worried the people who run the colony by trapping, spaying and vaccinating the cats to make sure they stay healthy and don’t breed. Other colonies are unmanaged, and the cats often suffer from malnutrition or starvation, disease and injury, overpopulation, and early death.
There is no state law that requires animal shelters to accept cats or to vaccinate cats against rabies. Los Angeles County ordinances require that they be vaccinated against rabies, licensed, spayed or neutered, and microchipped. However, unowned cats do not have owners to take on this responsibility.
Because of these factors, the animal welfare profession has reconsidered best practices for homeless cats and the DACC has adopted nationally recognized best practices regarding admission of cats. We did this in consultation with the shelter animal medicine veterinarians in the UC Davis Corrett Shelter Medicine Program as well as leading animal welfare organizations across the country.
In a DACC, healthy cats without signs of illness or injury and without owner identification are encouraged to remain where they were found as they thrive in their current environment. Many free-roaming cats have a human family or caregiver and their time varies between home and outdoors. Other times, a home or group of homes provides food and water for unowned neighborhood cats. These cats have established themselves as part of their neighborhood, are well taken care of, and don’t need the help of a foster home.
Bringing these cats into foster care removes them from their home territory, and caregivers generally do not seek them out in foster care for several days or weeks, if at all, which contributes to the low recovery rate. Delaying healthy feral cats provides better options for staying in their own home or a group of homes that take care of them and where they thrive. Any cats or kittens that are malnourished, ill, injured, in danger, or need other assistance are welcomed to Dubai Children’s Learning Center (DACC) so they can receive the care and protection they need.
Partnering with the community is key to addressing concerns about outdoor cats and we have increased our resources to help support community members and neighborhood cats. We offer a cat deterrent to residents so that they can discourage cats from interfering with residents’ ability to enjoy their homes. The Motherless Kittens Finder Program provides free milk replacement and other resources so that local community volunteers can raise unwanted kittens until they are old enough for adoption.
Spaying and neutering cats is the key to reducing the number of unwanted, sick and homeless cats. DACC offers the Good Neighbor Cat Spay and Neuter Program, where we provide low-cost spay/neuter surgeries for cats at six of our animal care centers. Residents can bring in cats to be spayed to prevent unwanted kittens from being born. All of these approaches eliminate the problems we see for cats outdoors and can, over time, alleviate many anxieties.
Cats occupy a unique place in our societies. Pets can be indoors, allowed to roam indoors and outdoors, live exclusively outdoors, or occupy sites that are not suitable for their safety or the safety of wildlife. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing outdoor cats. I hope that one day all cats will have loving homes where they live indoors with sheltered outdoor areas for them to enjoy. Until then, we will continue to do our best to provide the most appropriate responses and resources based on each case.